Home Page A readily accessible town centre, which people are unwilling to use 15/04/14

Haverhill Poll
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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

After a week away in the West Country catching up with friends who have retired there from these parts, I might be forgiven, you would think, for finding Haverhill just a little mundane – even dull.


Well, if you like overcrowded little roads, towns with no available parking or completely closed to traffic and multitudes of holidaymakers descending on amusement arcades and fish and chip shops, then Haverhill may seem a bit quiet.


In fact, the most notable difference to my eyes concerns the type of countryside and, although this part of Suffolk cannot compete with rugged moorlands and romantic coastlines, and I have no sea view from my windows, it too has its own particular, more restrained charm.


As far as general facilities are concerned Haverhill is, in many ways, streets ahead of many of the communities I wandered around in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. For a start, it’s a lot more convenient.


Access is becoming a major issue in these tourist honeypots in a way we can hardly imagine here, when we argue the rights and wrongs of pedestrianisation. Tiny towns now have car parks high up on the edge, with the only access to the shops being by a little minibus every 15 minutes.


If we think the A1307 is crowded, try any of the big roads down there during the summer. Even out of season they are frenetic.


I suppose one of the most obvious areas where Haverhill is lacking by comparison concerns eating out. Restaurants reflect the local clientele probably more than any other facility, so tourist areas have a huge advantage because their clientele is wide-ranging and ever-changing.


The problem in Haverhill seems to be that few people come here from outside to eat out, so the eating places can only reflect the town’s own population, where people eat for convenience, or to avoid having to drive anywhere.


Therefore we have a large provision of takeaways, but a narrow choice of sit-down restaurants. The new American Diner has added to the mix, but that again is very much in the family/convenience market, rather than the special evening out trade.


We have Prezzo, which always seems to be well patronised and makes me wonder why no one ever tried to set up an independent Italian restaurant in the town. There have been long-established and popular ones in much smaller towns all around.


It’s not as if anyone tried and failed, as has happened once or twice with the posh end of the market, proving that, within Haverhill itself, there are not enough people with the discernment or the spending power for true gourmet eating.


In fact, Haverhill is an extraordinary black hole for independent shops in general, something else which one notices by comparison with other towns. You can count them on the fingers of one hand, and it was sad to see one of the few – Morleys – close down recently.


There are several factors which contribute to this. Haverhill’s size is now around the worst possible for independents – big enough to have the big supermarkets and not big enough to weather their effect.


We see it all the time as Sainsbury’s and, more recently, Tesco have slowly hoovered up everything in the produce line except the Friday and Saturday market. We see it in the way the arrival of Wetherspoons has slowly but surely reduced the choice of traditional pubs until there are just four left in the town centre.


A smaller town can retain its independents much more successfully because, even if there is a big supermarket in a larger place a few miles away, it is enough for people not to lose the incentive to shop locally.


I was in Bungay the other week, a considerably smaller town, but one with reasonable links to bigger ones like Beccles and Lowestoft, and on the extreme fringe of a tourist area, The Norfolk Broads. There were few empty premises and town centre was packed with little independents. So far, the only supermarket is the Co-op.


Conversely, you can find plenty of independents in more substantial towns alongside several of the Big Four, such as Bury St Edmunds. You can even find them in quantity in towns slightly smaller than Haverhill but with a pull on the visiting trade such as Sudbury or Newmarket.


The most curious thing of all is that when you ask people in Haverhill what they think the town centre lacks, they will, by a huge majority, put their finger on the retail offer. If you ask what part of it they would like to see brought into the town, some will talk of the big chains like Debenhams or M&S, but many will point to ‘little independent shops’.


Every time anyone comes up with an idea for a brownfield site in the town centre – the prime example being Gurteens, but there are others – people say it would make a lovely development of flats above and little independent shops below. St Edmundsbury Borough Council are always talking about this sort of thing.


The trouble is, that it is generally the Bury councillors or the rural councillors who say it. But whenever anyone tries to set up a ‘little independent shop’ in Haverhill, do they come here to patronise it? Do they heck!


No, despite its convenient, user-friendly environment, it is left to Haverhill alone to support its retail trade and, sadly, it doesn’t seem very willing to do so, preferring to drive to Asda in Cambridge, or wherever, for ‘bargains’ – or nowadays the world’s biggest shop, Amazon.


So what do people want these ‘little independents shops’ for? As some sort of museum display – nice to look at? Something to attract ‘other people’ into town?


In the end you get what you deserve, I suppose. That is market forces at work.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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